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Climber's death on popular Oregon peak underscores dangers

GOVERNMENT CAMP, Ore. — Oregon's tallest peak rises above the streets of downtown Portland, its gorgeous snow-capped slopes luring 10,000 climbers a year.

The picture postcard view of Mount Hood makes it one of the most visited snow-capped peaks in America, a destination to check off during any respectable visit to the City of Roses.

"It just stands there and calls to you — and during clear weather like we've had the past couple of days, that mountain is there calling to anyone who's ever thought about climbing it," said Mark Morford, spokesman for Portland Mountain Rescue.

But Mount Hood's accessibility and beauty also obscure a treacherous history that once again came into focus Tuesday, when one man plummeted 1,000 (305 meters) feet to his death while summiting and three more were stranded thousands of feet up its icy slopes as a storm approached.

More than 130 climbers have died trying to reach the top of the dormant volcano, including an entire party of school children and their teachers who froze to death in 1986 while awaiting rescue and several climbers whose bodies have never been found.

Compounding the difficulty of the rescue Tuesday was the fact that for at least several hours, officials weren't sure exactly how many people remained on Mount Hood. At one point, they said they could be looking for anywhere between seven and 15 people.

That's because — unlike on some other iconic peaks in the West and Alaska — there is no registration requirement to scale Mount Hood and no one monitors the skill level or preparedness of those attempting an ascent. There is also no limit on how many can summit the 11,240-foot (3,429-meter) mountain each day.

That honor system and the peak's proximity to a major city can combine for a chaotic climbing environment on a mountain that seems accessible but is also home to 11 active glaciers and deep crevasses and prone to avalanches and weather that can change in minutes.

It takes only 90 minutes to drive from Portland to Timberline Lodge, where climbers can park in a lot that's only 5,000 feet (1,525 meters) below the summit. Someone in good shape who is properly prepared can easily complete the climb in a day and be back in Portland for dinner.

"There's no minimum qualification to do it," said Sgt. Brian Jensen, spokesman for the Clackamas County Sheriff's Department. "There's a bunch of warning signs in here but if someone says, 'Hey, I'm on vacation in Oregon and I've never climbed a mountain before and I want to climb Mount Hood,' there's nothing keeping them from doing it."

Sheriff's officials on Wednesday identified the dead climber as Miha Sumi, 35, of Portland and said he and his group had "mid-level experience" and were properly equipped with ice axes, crampons and helmets. Other climbers not in Sumi's party reached him and found him bleeding from the ears with fading vital signs. They performed CPR for 90 minutes before a helicopter could airlift Sumi off the slopes.

Jennifer Wade, recreation and lands program manager for the Mount Hood National Forest, said in response to an e-mail Wednesday that the mountain does not have a "check-in, check-out" system and rescues are only triggered by a 911 call. Mountaineering clubs offer training, but there are no requirements for scaling the peak, she said.

Accidents like the one Tuesday periodically stir debate about whether Mount Hood should have a permit system for climbers or stricter rules, Morford said. Climbers obtain a wilderness permit and are encouraged to fill out a form listing their planned route, the equipment they have and contact information, but it's not mandatory and many don't do it, he said.

There is no cap on how many people can be on the summit at one time.

That's different from the approach on some other iconic peaks in the Pacific Northwest.

Mount Rainier in Washington state limits the number of climbers on different parts of the mountain due to wilderness, overnight campsite and other considerations. Nearly 11,000 people registered to climb the tallest peak in Washington state at 14,410 feet (4,362 meters) in 2016, the latest figures available. About half successfully summit.

At Mount Rainier National Park, there are 12 to 14 climbing rangers, some seasonally. During the peak climbing season that begins in mid-May, there are seven rangers at any given time on the upper mountain. High camps typically have two rangers with others on climbing patrol, said Stefan Lofgren, climbing program ranger.

Mount St. Helens, which is also visible from Portland on a clear day, also caps the number of people who can climb it on a given day.

In Alaska, climbers attempting to scale Denali, North America's tallest mountain at 20,310 feet (6,190 meters), must register at least 60 days in advance and attend an orientation that lasts one to two hours, said National Park Service spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri in Talkeetna, Alaska.

On registration forms, parties list their expertise or comparable wilderness experience, such as glacier travel and wilderness first aid. Mountaineering rangers review applications, and if teams appear to lack experience, rangers speak to them about other training they might consider or other peaks to climb to gain experience. But there's no "screen-out" based on experience or skills, Gualtieri said.

There are 12 to 16 people on the Denali from 7,000 to 17,000 feet (2,134 to 5,182 meters) ready to help climbers in trouble, she added.

Mount Hood is much smaller, but veteran climbers like Scott Schoenborn still don't take an ascent lightly.

On Tuesday, as he descended the mountain, he ran into the companions of the man who fell to his death.

Schoenborn, 53, always fills out the information forms at Timberline Lodge before departing, even if they aren't mandatory, he said.

"Mount Hood's killed a lot of people and when I take new climbers up, the first thing I do is I tell them to go to Wikipedia on 'deaths on Mount Hood' and start reading so that they know it's a serious mountain and to take it seriously," he said, as he rested with his ice pick still strapped to his back.

Schoenborn added: "You need to be trained (and) you need to go with someone who's experienced."


Associated Press Writers Phuong Le in Seattle and Dan Joling in Anchorage contributed to this report.